Riding alone on the elevator

A class experiment in interdisciplinary education

in Learning and Teaching

Abstract

The ability to conduct interdisciplinary research is crucial to address complex real-world problems that require the collaboration of different scientific fields, with global warming being a case in point. To produce integrated climate-related knowledge, climate researchers should be trained early on to work across boundaries and gain an understanding of diverse disciplinary perspectives. This article argues for social breaching as a methodology to introduce students with a natural science background to the social sciences in the context of integrated climate sciences. The breach of a social norm presented here was to ask people whether the experimenter could ride on an elevator alone. We conclude that the approach is effective in letting students with a natural science background explore and experience the power of social reality, and is especially suitable for a small-sized introductory class.

The ability to conduct interdisciplinary research is crucial to address complex real-world problems that require the collaboration of different scientific fields. This mode of research in turn requires scholars to use integration as part of their methodology (Newell and Klein 1996; Pfirman and Martin 2010: 395). Interdisciplinarity is, and has always been, a contested concept with a range of manifestation and degrees in science policy, research funding, research practice and communication in contexts of application (for a review of taxonomies, see Klein 2010). These conceptual debates are beyond the scope of this article, which restricts its focus to a question of practical interest: how can ‘doing interdisciplinarity’ be facilitated by teaching in higher education, especially with regard to bridging the infamous ‘two cultures’ (Snow 1959) gap between the natural and the social sciences (for example, DeZure 2010).

A case in point is the field of climate sciences. The field focuses on understanding the entire climate system to address the real-world problem of climate change. Therefore, climate research has always been interdisciplinary. Yet the range of disciplines has been considerably broadened in recent years (cf. Beck et al. 2013; DKK Deutsches Klimakonsortium 2015), with the social sciences (other than economics) and humanities coming in as participating fields. Still, a hierarchy of disciplines is evident in detailing their inclusion, for instance, in the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Hulme 2011; Victor 2015). But scholars of society increasingly negotiate their role and added value, arguing that climate change is a ‘wicked social problem’ – rather than a scientific problem – and thus calls for the expertise of the social sciences and humanities (Beck and Mahony 2017; Geden 2015; Grundmann 2016). This social science perspective frames climate change as a manageable but not solvable problem (analogous to the social problem of crime, Grundmann 2016: 562). From this follows, for instance, that scientific evidence will not generally lead to faster or improved policy solutions as implied in traditional linear models of the science-policy relation (for an example, see Kirchner 2017).

We argue that Grundmann’s focus on the social sciences should be complemented by an emphasis on integrated approaches to climate-related knowledge production, presentation and policy advice. Here, a recurring issue in the integration of climate-related social and natural sciences is the lack of joint conceptual models of society and its relation to the climate system (Rödder 2016). It was the idea of the course ‘Introduction to the social sciences’ in a climate Master’s programme for students with natural science backgrounds to foster an awareness of social reality and complexity for future collaboration in climate research.1 This is in line with the above-named tendency to reframe climate change as a social problem and thought to empower joint conceptual thinking at a point in time of an academic career when disciplinary socialisation is not yet strongly developed.

In this article, the students and the lecturer jointly document how the class ‘Introduction to the social sciences’ was taught around a so-called ‘breaching experiment’. The aim of our reflections is to advance an understanding of whether experiential learning facilitates integrated education across the ‘two cultures’ divide. Specifically, we argue for social breaching as a methodology to let natural science students experience the power of social reality as a reality sui generis (Durkheim ([1895] 1982), and well worthy of scholarly investigation (Rafalovich 2006).

The class was taken by first-semester students in the winter term 2014–2015 at the University of Hamburg.2 The class’s main learning objective was that students with a natural science background and enrolled in a graduate programme in integrated climate sciences could acknowledge the relevance and complexity of social reality. Further learning objectives included that the students, by the end of the course, should be familiar with questions that social scientists explore as well as with some basic methodology and concepts such as social norms, mass media and scientific policy advice that could be related to their interest in climate science.

The course is part of the two-year MSc programme ‘Integrated Climate System Sciences’ at the University of Hamburg. The programme covers a wide range of climate-related natural sciences as well as relevant aspects of social and economic sciences. The graduate school in which the programme is embedded provides ‘integrative and structured programs on climate system sciences with an internationally accepted MSc and/or PhD degree’ (Membership application guidelines, Graduate school, Version June 2014). The programme specifically aims to prepare students for a ‘career in an interdisciplinary field of science’ improving their ‘ability to communicate with colleagues from different disciplines, to apply a diverse suite of methods from various subject areas to climate-related research questions, as well as the generation, interpretation and combination of scientific results’ (SICSS MSc Module Handbook winter term 2017/18). The students enrolled in the MSc programme have backgrounds in diverse fields such as physics, geo- and atmospheric sciences.

In this educational context, the lecturer adopted an experiential learning approach to introduce the students to the social sciences for several reasons. First, the approach establishes social complexity from an empirical rather than conceptual side. To conduct and analyse a breaching experiment does not require prior in-depth knowledge of theories and concepts in the field and therefore appears as an appropriate starting point for an introductory class. By conducting the breach, the students should be able to relate to the field of study by their emotional involvement as experimenters. Second, the students gain hands-on experience with empirical social science and should be able to critically reflect on the methodology according to their experiences with the breaching experiment. Third, the experiential learning structures the curriculum of the class throughout the term: the experiment has to be prepared, conducted, presented and discussed in class as well as in a written report. Furthermore, similarities and differences between experimentation in the social and natural sciences become obvious. Students learn, for instance, that the researcher who conducts the breach is part of the experimental condition in a different way than in the natural sciences because s/he behaves according to the same rules as the subjects under study.

The article is organised as follows. In the next section, the idea of social breaching is introduced by distinguishing types of social norms, by describing the class experiment ‘riding alone on the elevator’ and by detailing the experimental set-up to allow for repetition. The students then describe the outcome of the elevator experiment in an overview and selected experimental runs. They analyse the subjects’ reactions to the breach as well as their own experiences as experimenters and observers respectively. Against this background, the authors then jointly discuss the empirical results in the light of their sociological class reading and reflect on the experiment in the broader context of integrated education in the climate field.

The breaching of social norms

Conceptual considerations on social norms

Social norms are shared expectations about acceptable behaviour, values and belief: ‘The social experiences we have and expect to have at a restaurant, coffee house, grocery store, gas station, etc., create the everyday social stability people largely take for granted’ (Rafalovich 2006: 157; emphasis added). Social norms are followed unconsciously, people (usually) do not reflect on them and are not even aware that they follow a rule. A case in point are gender-specific dress codes: by wearing a skirt in class, a male lecturer can breach a social norm whereas in the case of a female lecturer, the students may not even notice that she is wearing a skirt today, but that she was wearing trousers two weeks ago.

According to their terms of enforcement, social norms can be classified into different categories. The most institutionalised social norms are legal norms: ‘The entire law enforcement establishment is charged with the responsibility of keeping behaviour within the law’ (Milgram and Sabini 1978: 32). Moral norms are a second category. They can be defined by the fact that deviance from moral norms does not attract legal sanctions but socially ‘there are penalties for infraction, while individuals are generally rewarded for compliance’ (Goffman 1963). A third category of social norms are what Garfinkel has called ‘background expectancies’ or the ‘routine grounds of everyday activities’ (1964). Garfinkel (1964: 226) established the study of background expectancies by way of their violation and defined the idea of social breaching as being ‘a stranger to the life as usual character of everyday scenes’. Examples from his teaching include behaving like a hotel guest in your parents’ house. A further seminal paper is a study in the New York subway where students asked passengers for their seat without a plausible reason for their request (Milgram and Sabini 1978).3

Background expectancies as ‘residual rules’ (Scheff 1970) of social interaction can be clearly distinguished from the other two categories of social norms: in their case, there is no concept for deviance from the background expectancy (such as homicide for deviance from the legal prohibition of killing or adultery for deviance from marital fidelity). In fact, there are few incentives for breaching background expectancies (other than scientific curiosity). To obtain a seat in the subway is a small gain compared to the discomfort of appearing socially awkward. Therefore, deviance from the routine grounds of everyday activity rarely happens. The lecturer thus assumed that a breach of background expectancies can provide relevant insights into the dynamics of norm enforcement as a section of social reality that the students were not aware of prior to the class.

The elevator experiment

In class, the students first discussed the concept of social breaching, its distinction from other types of deviance and seminal studies such as Milgram and Sabini’s 1978 experiments in the New York subway. The students were then asked to come up with their own ideas for a breaching experiment. The breach that was eventually chosen as the class’s experiment was to ask people, as they were waiting for an elevator, whether the experimenter could ride on the elevator alone. This experiment was originally developed by Mathias Zeller in a similar class in 2013–2014.

Riding on an elevator with other people is a typical public situation characterised by a type of behaviour identified as ‘civil inattention’: without signalling contempt, people meet others present in public places with disinterest (Goffman 1971). An elevator in an office building is an example of a ‘non-place’ (Augé 1995), an urban means of mobility beyond history and relations, unlike conventional anthropological places, such as village squares and market places. Its very function is to save time and effort by avoiding the stairs. The handling of other people’s time therefore is the major moral issue of riding on an elevator (Hirschauer 1999). Our experiment challenges the practice that everybody can ride on the elevator as long as there is enough space in the cabin, following a ‘first come, first served’ rule. It can be expected that people waiting in front of an elevator want to get to their destinations as quickly as possible and that they prefer to ride on the next available elevator. Without a justification, a request to ride on the elevator alone appears to waste other people’s time. We therefore expected that the majority of people would reject our request.4

The class exercise was to conduct the breaching experiment and to observe and analyse the subjects’ reactions as well as one’s own emotions as experimenter during the experiment. In the following section, the set-up of the experiment is described in some detail to allow for others to repeat it.

Empirical methodology

The students conducted a total of fifty-five experiments between December 2014 and January 2015 around lunchtime at two buildings on the University of Hamburg campus. Each building has six elevators and more than a dozen floors. The request was brought forward in German (‘Entschuldigung? Dürfte ich den Fahrstuhl bitte alleine benutzen?’), or English (‘Excuse me? May I please use the elevator alone?’). The five participating students (one male, four female) were between twenty-one and twenty-five years old.

The students worked in pairs, one student as the experimenter and one student as an observer. To begin with, the experimenter waited in front of an elevator together with the other prospective passengers. When the elevator arrived, the experimenter politely requested to use the elevator alone – without justification – and, if necessary, repeated the request until it was understood. The experimenter gave a trivial reason for the request (such as ‘I prefer that’ or ‘I just feel better then’) only when somebody explicitly asked for a justification. The experiment was paused when too many people were waiting for an elevator because it was too noisy and the people at the back would not have been able to hear the request.

After the experimenter’s request was either granted or refused, the observer tried to quickly join the subjects. S/he mainly listened to their conversations and tried to find out more about the subjects’ emotions and thoughts by asking what had happened. The experimenter and the observer took care to not be seen together by any prospective subject.

Finally, the observer and experimenter noted the result of the respective breach (success or rejection), experimental conditions such as the gender and number of subjects and – by guessing, not asking – the age of all subjects and whether they were known to one another prior to the experimental situation. Furthermore, the subjects’ reactions were documented.5

On the social reality of the elevator breach: results from the elevator experiment

Descriptive assessment of the experiment

Out of the fifty-five requests, the students found that 76 per cent were successful in the sense that the people who had waited for the elevator with the experimenter agreed to let her/him ride alone. This is contrary to the initial expectation that a majority of subjects would decline the unusual request. Yet, it is exactly the share of success that Milgram and Sabini found in their subway study (1978, see endnote 3).

However, the students observed irritation in the subjects’ response in almost all cases. The range of reactions was rather broad, from kindness and sympathy to annoyance and anger. In many cases, people did not understand the request at first. This can be interpreted as indicative of how unusual and unexpected it was. Subjects tended to reassure themselves by repeating the question or responding ‘What?’ which then prompted the experimenter to restate the request. It also occurred several times that only a part of the group was aware of the experimenter’s question. In this case, the request and also the justification had to be repeated several times. Sometimes, one person took on the role of explaining the request to the others present. This was instrumental in making the request successful, because the person who explained it to the others appeared to mediate between the experimenter and the group.

Even after the question was understood, the subjects were slow to come up with a reaction that resolved the situation; slow as compared to answering questions such as what time it is. This was especially the case for requests made in English. The subjects’ perplexity was expressed by hesitation in speaking, confused or uncertain smiles and a tendency to avoid eye contact or of stopping halfway on the doorstep of the elevator. If people had already started to enter the cabin, they were usually harder to convince and the situation became more difficult for the experimenter. A few times it remained unclear whether the subjects had understood the question properly. Several times they ignored it altogether. But there were many cases in which people immediately understood the request and quickly granted it without further ado. This mainly occurred when individuals were asked in a relatively quiet situation where only a few people were waiting to use the elevator.

Once the initial perplexity was overcome, the interaction with the experimenter differed from run to run. The decision process took longer the bigger the group was. In most of these cases, one or two persons were primarily involved in a conversation with the experimenter and led the discussion. Sometimes a single person ended up speaking for the entire group by saying, for instance: ‘Well OK, let him go then!’

For the cases in which the experimenter was asked to justify his/her request, two kinds of reactions were observed: in some cases, the subjects were sympathetic and, consequently, more inclined to grant the request. Later, in conversation with the observer, they often speculated that the experimenter might be claustrophobic or suffer from a related social anxiety. In other cases, the trivial justification added to people’s irritation and anger. Subjects insisted more on their right to ride on the elevator and told the experimenter to wait for the next elevator cabin. Interestingly, there were cases in which the subjects themselves gave a justification, or apology, as to why they cannot grant the request, such as that they have a meeting or are otherwise pressed for time. One subject who was carrying a lunch tray from the canteen argued that the food would be cold by the time he arrived upstairs in case he had to wait for another elevator.

Following a successful request, the reactions of the people who were left waiting were also diverse. Individuals and small groups who had quickly granted the request would summon the next elevator without further ado. Most were rather curt in talking to the observer and briefly described what had happened with no personal comments. This was especially the case when the subjects were apparently not known to one another prior to the experiment. The shared experience of an unusual situation, however, sometimes initiated conversations amongst those who were still waiting after the experimenter had left. The observer could easily join these conversations. Some people angrily complained about the insolence of the experimenter’s behaviour. Others calmly explained the situation to the observer, speculating about anxiety issues that the experimenter might have. Still others remained puzzled but friendly, shrugging their shoulders and mumbling to themselves, ‘Well, there are people like that’. Larger groups, or people who had known each other beforehand, burst into laughter or joked about the purpose of the experimenter’s behaviour and their own ‘sudden desires’ (‘I want to ride the next elevator alone!’). Several people said goodbye to the observer and wished her or him a nice day after having an amusing chat in the elevator cabin. We conclude that the joint experience of an unusual situation and the shared fate of having to wait for the next elevator facilitated interaction between people who had been strangers before the request.

Description of selected cases

Because the outcomes of the individual experimental runs were rather diverse, this section describes four cases in more detail. They were selected to exemplify the range of empirical experiences with the request.

  1. A woman in her twenties and a man, possibly around fifty, apparently not known to one another, are waiting for the elevator when the experimenter arrives. At first, they do not react to the request and enter the elevator cabin. When the request is repeated, the woman recognises that the question is in English and asks to which floor the experimenter wants to go. As the experimenter answers (‘to the 4th floor!’) and then repeats the request, she says: ‘Yes, this is the right elevator, you can take it. It goes to the 4th floor’. As the doors close, the observer manages to slip into the elevator. The woman eventually understands the intention of the question, reaches with her arm between the closing doors, opens them again and leaves the cabin. The man and the observer follow her without hesitation. After the experimenter has left, the woman explains the situation by saying that the experimenter might be afraid and therefore prefers to ride alone.
  2. A man around twenty years old is waiting in front of the elevator doors. When the experimenter approaches him with the request, the subject does not understand at first, as he is listening to music on his headphones. He enters the cabin and takes the headphones off when he is asked a second time. The subject is surprised, hesitates slightly, but then leaves the cabin again to look for another elevator. He does not seem to care a lot and is still friendly. When the observer joins him on the ride in the next elevator, he says a bit thoughtfully and with a smile, ‘Well, I have never heard such a question before. Maybe she has experienced something. One cannot look into people’s heads’.
  3. This time, a group of three women is waiting, apparently not known to each other: an older woman around fifty and two younger women around thirty. One of the younger women does not take part in the decision process because she is speaking on the phone. The experimenter starts to talk to the older woman but stops when it becomes obvious that she does not understand English. The experimenter asks the younger woman who is very surprised but unimpressed (‘Seriously? Well, no!’). The younger woman translates the question for the older woman, who, too, refuses the request (‘Well, no! We also want to go up’). The experimenter leaves the elevator and the observer joins the passengers in the cabin. In a short conversation, the younger woman is not empathetic and the older woman justifies her response by moral principles (‘Well, I would also prefer to go alone. What would she [the experimenter] do in a crowded subway?’).
  4. The experimenter is waiting with five people who are involved in a conversation. From their age and appearance, they are probably students. While the experimenter addresses one man with the request, two of the women enter the elevator cabin, unaware of the request. The doors suddenly close; the group is separated and rather confused. The man who was initially approached asks the experimenter why he wants to ride alone. He seems unsure whether he should take the request seriously or not but remains friendly. The elevator doors reopen and the two women leave the cabin. They have apparently followed the conversation from inside the cabin, as one of them shouts with an angry voice, avoiding eye contact with the experimenter: ‘Well fine, let him go then! If that’s what he wants!’ In the presence of the observer, this woman suggests afterwards that the experimenter might be claustrophobic, and tells the others that it is best to leave these people on their own.
Description of emotions as experimenters

During the experiment, the students experienced numerous, sometimes intense emotions that they attributed to the exceptionality of the task and the situation. Common and conflicting feelings of most experimenters were, in the beginning, unwillingness, on the one hand, and curiosity, on the other hand. Most students felt uncomfortable to initiate the experiment for the first time and showed symptoms of stress such as blushing, trembling hands and an increased sweat production. Even though the symptoms became less intensive, ‘there was this intuitive reluctance that had to be overcome each time again before asking somebody’ (Felix Schreyer). Others reported that they established a kind of routine and felt increasingly comfortable and thrilled to conduct the experiment. However, discomfort about dealing with others as objects of an experiment and intentionally establishing a situation that was socially challenging for all parties involved, was omnipresent. Some students adopted a moral attitude towards the exercise, feeling guilty to take ‘advantage of the friendliness and the credulity of people when it is completely unnecessary’ (Barbara Hof).

In order to be able to continue the experiment, the students rationalised their behaviour by its value for science. A coping strategy was to think of the experimenter’s task as a ‘role of acting as a person who really has a reason for asking that question’ (Anna Frank). The student who pursued this strategy reported the least problems with conducting the experiment. But contrary to the students’ assumption that conducting the experiment would become easier with time, the opposite turned out to be true for most of them. Curiosity and fun ‘rapidly developed towards tension, embarrassment and anxiety’ (Rebecca Froese). Instead, increasingly felt emotions were awkwardness and being at the centre of negative public attention.

Although the students had anticipated that a majority of people would not grant the request, some felt personally hurt by rude rejections. Most reported to be equally relieved and exhausted after the experiments. They found that it was hard but interesting to experience being involved in a social situation as much as the people that were asked. All students concluded that by conducting a social breach they learned something about themselves.

Descriptions of emotions as observers

The role of observer was more appealing than the role of experimenter. The students noted that ‘the violation of a taken-for-granted rule facilitated the violation of another rule, the rule not to talk to strangers’ (Maike Scheffold). The unusual situation established a collective, similar to witnesses of a car accident or fire. This collective usually included the observer. After overcoming an initial hesitation, the observers mostly felt accepted and welcomed and the subjects talked easily and in a friendly manner to him or her. They often explained the situation, laughed and joked about it and tried to make sense of the experimenter’s request.

With time, however, some observers started to feel uneasy when the experimenter experienced stress or when the subjects commented disparagingly about the experimenter whom the observer knows and likes. As the students took on both roles during the experiment, empathy with the experimenters started to dominate the observers’ emotions. The students described the overall feeling as observers as a mixture of fun, embarrassment, sympathy and solidarity.

Discussion and contextualisation of the elevator experiment

In this section, the students contextualise the results of the elevator experiment with their seminar reading. The presentation follows the chronological order of the experimental setting.

A first result is that, in most cases, people did not initially understand the question. The question had to be repeated several times, especially when it was asked in English. This can be interpreted as indicative of how unusual and unexpected the request to ride alone on the elevator was. Subsequently, the request was granted in three out of four experiments. This success rate is exactly what Milgram and Sabini found in their 1978 study on the New York subway. Subjects who denied the request often justified their denial. This confirms Goffman’s general finding that polite requests demand either compliance or ‘accounted denial’ (1971). In Milgram and Sabini’s words, ‘it takes time to realize that a justification is not required in this case or to construct one. Many subjects may have (…) [granted the request] simply because they didn’t know how not to’ (1978: 35; original emphasis).

Second, we discuss the question of the experimenter’s influence on the success of the request. Each experimenter had different success rates ranging from 50 per cent to 100 per cent. Women were less often rejected than men, but this has to be interpreted with caution as there were considerably fewer experiments carried out by male (n=13) than by female experimenters (n=42). Furthermore, all students expressed the request in a slightly different way, for instance, in how politely the request was made and how quickly the experimenter gave the trivial justification for her/his behaviour. The situation also matters: the experimenter was in a better position if s/he could ask people before they entered the cabin, as it requires more effort from the subjects to step out of the cabin again than not to enter at all.

While the subjects’ reactions ranged from empathetic kindness to anger and irritation, they commonly tried to make sense of the experimenter’s behaviour by normalising the situation (cf. Milgram and Sabini 1978: 33). The standard normalisation was that the experimenter had psychological issues such as claustrophobia. This explanation seemed so plausible that a number of subjects were rather happy to let the experimenter ride alone. Even when a trivial justification such as ‘I like it better’ was given, the subjects seemed to interpret this statement in the light of their normalisation strategy. In contrast to Milgram and Sabini’s case, to give a trivial justification did not decrease the success rate of the elevator request.

With regard to their own emotions, all students reported an initial hesitation, a certain curiosity, a weird emotion about being intentionally irrational and disturbing, as well as exhaustion and relief after the experiment. To ride alone on the elevator was not asking much from the subjects after all, and the strong and mostly negative emotions surprised the students. In their class reports, there was a tendency to psychologise this finding and turn to personal timidity as an explanation. In the seminar discussion, however, the instructor suggested a sociological explanation: ‘In the case of background expectancies, it is neither negative sanctions that safeguard their stability nor a personality trait such as timidity that keeps our behaviour inside the “normal”, but our very socialisation into the taken-for-granted’ (Simone Rödder).

The reaction of small groups usually depended on the promptness of an individual who then negotiated and decided for the entire group. That his or her decision was adopted by all who were waiting is worth elaborating. We assume that the unusual situation created a collective (with people starting conversations and adopting others’ decisions) that acknowledges its existence in the form of comments and jokes (cf. Hirschauer 1999). It was these comments and jokes that were often observed. Within the collective, the experience of a breach of one background expectancy facilitated the breach of another ‘residual rule’ of relations in public, the rule not to talk to strangers (cf. Goffman 1971).

This initial experiment could be further developed along several lines. Additional data could be collected to make a quantitative analysis robust. The qualitative analysis could be improved by conducting short interviews with the subjects after the experiment about their self-description. The students rarely triggered longer conversations and it was rather arbitrary whether relevant data could be obtained. It would also be interesting to see how future experiments similar to this one might work with other social breaching situations.

The students concluded that the experiment provided valuable insight into the dynamics of norm enforcement. Irritation at first followed by a normal isation strategy for the request to ride on the elevator alone – namely, assuming that the experimenter is claustrophobic – were frequent and convincing. A different experimental setting could make it harder to normalise the breach by attributing it to psychological problems (for example, a setting in which the experimenter asks to ride alone in the first place and then brings along a couple of other experimenters to ride together) and could thus provide further insight into public social interaction in situations of crisis.

Conclusions about the experiential learning approach

Because the students had never taken a social science class before, expectations towards the course were not very distinctive. Most students had chosen the elective class out of general curiosity to explore a different academic field, aiming for insights into the variety of concepts and for an enhanced understanding across disciplines. So, to what extent did the experiential learning activity facilitate integrated education, help the students to understand social science reasoning and methodology, and relate it to their own natural science backgrounds?

In describing the elevator experiment, we have argued for social breaching as a methodology to introduce students with a natural science background to the complexity of social reality and the associated relevance of the social sciences in the climate field. From the students’ reports about their experiences in conducting the experiment, we conclude that they developed an understanding of social reality, as well as scholarly reasoning about it. The students did not expect this kind of experience and learning outcome from the class but were positively surprised by the possibility of conducting a field study and even more by the outcome of the experiment and their observations about themselves while carrying it out.

Conducting a social breaching experiment included practice and personal experience. Gaining insight into social science methodologies turned out to be a surprising experience and very different from the scientific field and lab experiments with which the students were familiar. Being a participant of one’s own experiment, literally being the ‘ball on the slope’, was an intriguing experience for natural scientists who do not socially interact with the objects of their experiments. The exploration of a different experimental culture was instrumental in stimulating discussions on methods, concepts and meanings of social science research and relating them to prior experiences from the natural sciences.

Furthermore, the breaching project structured the learning process. All methodological steps for conducting a social science experiment were covered in the course ‘Introduction to social sciences’, starting with the research literature and discussion of examples, moving on to developing the set-up of the experiment, thinking it through and conducting it to finally interpreting the outcomes in oral and written form and, eventually, writing up this article for publication.

As the approach introduced the field of study with an empirical focus, patterns of ‘normal’ behaviour could be observed both with other people, fellow students and experienced in the students’ own behaviour. The experiment enabled the students consciously to experience the presence of shared expectations in everyday public situations and the normative power of the taken-for-granted.

The breaching experiment, however, took up a great amount of time throughout the course, which limited the time for other topics. An additional restriction for the feasibility of this teaching approach is the number of students. The project highly benefited from the small class size of only five students. From our experience, we recommend that fifteen to twenty students are the maximum for a class of this style.

Integrated approaches to both education and research are expedient in many contexts, with global warming being a case in point. The public and policy interest in climate sciences is well known and, with the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the field has established a means to integrate climate-related knowledge for its application in scientific policy advice. To be able to produce and communicate integrated climate-related knowledge, climate researchers should be trained early on to cross borders, and to get insights into and gain an understanding of other fields and social worlds. In this article, we suggest that social breaching is a powerful gateway to social reality. The experiential approach facilitated an integrated educational experience and therefore prepared the students for cross-disciplinary collaboration in climate-related research or fields of practice.

Notes
1

For a class curriculum that explicitly focussed on the development of joint concepts across climate sciences’ disciplines, see Baehr et al. (2016).

2

In this term, ‘Introduction to the social sciences’ was an elective class which was chosen by five out of fourteen Master’s students. In the meantime, however, the curriculum of the MSc course has been restructured, and from the winter term 2016–2017, ‘Introduction to the social sciences’ is a mandatory class.

3

In more than two-thirds of the 145 cases, passengers offered their seats to the student. Milgram and Sabini tested a variety of experimental conditions and found that trivial justifications and early warnings decreased the success rate.

4

It should be noted that the expectation that people ride on the elevator together is not the only one that is violated by our request. In an elevator, very basic rules of ‘relations in public’ apply, such as the right to not be approached by strangers (Goffman 1971).

5

The empirical methodology was discussed in class prior to the experiment, but it turned out to not be possible to completely standardise it. A certain variety between individual experiments remained due to situational circumstances but also due to differences between the student experimenters who developed individual techniques (voice, gesture, mimics) and preferences for ways of conducting the experiment.

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  • HulmeM. (2011) ‘Meet the humanitiesNature Climate Change 1 no. 4: 177179.

  • KirchnerJ. (2017) ‘Science, politics, and rationality in a partisan eraWater Resources Research 53 no. 5: 35453549.

  • KleinJ.T. (2010) ‘A taxonomy of interdisciplinarity’ in R. FrodemanJ.T. Klein and C. Mitcham (eds) The Oxford Handbook of InterdisciplinarityOxford: Oxford University Press1530.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MilgramS. and SabiniJ. (1978) ‘On maintaining urban norms: a field experiment in the subway’ in A. BaumJ.E. Singer and S. Valins (eds) Advances in Environmental Psychology Vol. 1 The Urban EnvironmentHillsdale, NJ: Laurence Earlbaum Associates, Publishers3140.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • NewellW.H. and KleinJ.T. (1996) ‘Interdisciplinary studies into the 21st centuryThe Journal of General Education 45 no. 2: 152169.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PfirmanS. and MartinP. (2010) ‘Facilitating interdisciplinary scholars’ in R. FrodemanJ.T. Klein and C. Mitcham (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity. Oxford: Oxford University Press387403.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RafalovichA. (2006) ‘Making sociology relevant: the assignment and application of breaching experimentsTeaching Sociology 34 no. 2: 156163.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RödderS. (2016) ‘Advancing integrated thinking and research through interdisciplinary team teaching: a reflection of our first scales course and conclusions for the scales approach’ in J. BaehrJ. BehrensM. BrüggemannT. FrisiusM. GleßmerJ. HartmannI. HenseL. KaleschkeL. KutzbachS. RödderJ. Scheffran (eds) Scales in the Climate System M-Book-Script for lecture Hamburg.

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    • Export Citation
  • ScheffT.J. (1970) Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological TheoryNew Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

  • SnowC.P. (1959) The Two CulturesLondon: Cambridge University Press.

  • VictorD. (2015) ‘Embed the social sciences in climate policyNature 520 no. 7545: 2729.

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Contributor Notes

Anna Malin Frank is a student of the CliSAP Master’s programme ‘Integrated Climate System Sciences’ at the University of Hamburg. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in geosciences. She is currently interested in different cultural perceptions of climate change and possible individual behaviour change in the context of climate change. E-mail: malinfrank@gmx.de

Rebecca Froese is a PhD candidate in the Research Group ‘Climate Change and Security’ (CLISEC) at the University of Hamburg’s climate cluster CliSAP with a Master’s degree in ‘Integrated Climate System Sciences’ and a Bachelor’s degree in earth and ocean sciences. Her research focuses on the role of non-party stakeholders in climate compatible development. E-mail: rebecca.froese@studium.uni-hamburg.de

Barbara Christiane Hof is a Master’s student of ‘Integrated Climate System Sciences’ at the University of Hamburg. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in physics from the Technical University of Darmstadt. She is interested in research on the link between the physical climate system and society. E-mail: barbara.hof@somlen.de

Maike Iris Esther Scheffold is a research assistant at the Faculty of Mathematics, Informatics and Natural Sciences, Climate Modelling, University of Hamburg. Previously, she studied ‘Integrated Climate System Sciences’ at the University of Hamburg. She received her Bachelor’s degree in geology/geophysics after studying four semesters of chemical engineering and is currently interested in marine ecosystems and socially acceptable ecosystem management approaches. E-mail: maike.scheffold@uni-hamburg.de

Felix Schreyer is a guest researcher at the research unit ‘Sustainability and Global Change’ at the University of Hamburg and an alumnus of its Master’s programme ‘Integrated Climate System Science’. As an undergraduate, he studied physics of the earth and philosophy. He is interested in research on the economic assessment of climate change impacts and sustainable future transformation pathways. E-mail: felix.schreyer@posteo.de

Mathias Zeller is a PhD student at the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. His interests are the physical aspects of the climate system, focussing on the role of the ocean as well as societal impacts of climate change and their media representation. E-mail: mathias.zeller@monash.edu

Simone Rödder, Prof. Dr phil. nat., is an assistant professor of sociology of science at the University of Hamburg’s Department of Social Sciences, Business and Economics. She heads the research group ‘Understanding Science in Interaction’ at the climate cluster CliSAP and teaches social sciences in the Cluster’s graduate school. She has an academic background in biology and sociology. Her main research interests are the sociology of science and science communication. E-mail: simone.roedder@uni-hamburg.de

Learning and Teaching

The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PfirmanS. and MartinP. (2010) ‘Facilitating interdisciplinary scholars’ in R. FrodemanJ.T. Klein and C. Mitcham (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity. Oxford: Oxford University Press387403.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RafalovichA. (2006) ‘Making sociology relevant: the assignment and application of breaching experimentsTeaching Sociology 34 no. 2: 156163.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RödderS. (2016) ‘Advancing integrated thinking and research through interdisciplinary team teaching: a reflection of our first scales course and conclusions for the scales approach’ in J. BaehrJ. BehrensM. BrüggemannT. FrisiusM. GleßmerJ. HartmannI. HenseL. KaleschkeL. KutzbachS. RödderJ. Scheffran (eds) Scales in the Climate System M-Book-Script for lecture Hamburg.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ScheffT.J. (1970) Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological TheoryNew Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

  • SnowC.P. (1959) The Two CulturesLondon: Cambridge University Press.

  • VictorD. (2015) ‘Embed the social sciences in climate policyNature 520 no. 7545: 2729.